Why Single-Tasking Makes You Smarter

Modern technology pushes us to multitask, but a neuroscientist says we need more focus to preserve brain power

By Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D.
Originally Posted On May 9, 2013

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Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D. is founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth and the Dee Wyly Distinguished University Professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. She is also author of Make Your Brain Smarter: Increase Your Brain’s Creativity, Energy and Focus.

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When I ask people at what age they feel they were (or are) the sharpest, it is shocking to me that no matter their current age – 20s, 50s, 80s – they always say their peak performance was 10, and often 20, years earlier. It does not have to be that way. Your best brain years can be ahead of you, not behind. Recent studies show that if you can change the way you think, you can change the wiring in your brain to improve its function and health.
 
I have spent my career researching how the brain best learns, reasons and makes sound decisions, as well as how to strengthen it. My goal is to accelerate the discovery of ways to ensure our brains remain more vibrant, supporting our need to make sound financial decisions, solve problems and retain creativity. In my recent book, Make Your Brain Smarter: Increase Your Creativity, Energy and Focus, I condense 30 years of research into tips on how you can rev up your brain's performance at any age.
 
Why Multitasking Fails

So often we find ourselves in environments that erroneously place a high value on being able to multitask, the prevailing perception being that the more you can do at once, the more expertly intelligent and efficient you are. Alarmingly, some people even believe that multitasking is a good workout for the brain.

This type of thinking is damaging to your health.

Multitasking is a brain drain that exhausts the mind, zaps cognitive resources and, if left unchecked, condemns us to early mental decline and decreased sharpness. Chronic multitaskers also have increased levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, which can damage the memory region of the brain.
 
Frequently switching between tasks overloads the brain and makes you less efficient. It's a formula for failure in which your thoughts remain on the surface level and errors occur more frequently.
 
Multitasking, though, can be a difficult habit to break. It's more common among teenagers and young adults who are constantly connected to email, smart phones and social media apps, but older technology users also seek the immediate satisfaction of beeps, dings and buzzes. Each creates an addicting release of dopamine in the brain, which perpetuates the need for speed and ceaseless stimulation, making the cycle more difficult to break.

Time for a Change

If you are a chronic multitasker, there is good news: You are never too old (or too young) to be proactive about brain health and performance. Recent studies provide evidence that adopting healthier thinking habits and improved cognitive strategies can rejuvenate your mind, reversing its clock by decades.
 
When you train your brain to think more strategically and efficiently, measurable improvements register on the biological level. Our own studies show that after only six hours of training, subjects can experience upsurges in neuron-nourishing blood flow, the genesis of new brain cells, improved communication between regions of the brain and increased white matter growth.
 
Consistent single-tasking helps ensure that your decision-making skills last late into your senior years. In "Healthy Brain, Healthy Decisions," a recent study of rational ability in people age 50 to 80, sponsored by the MetLife Mature Market Institute, the biggest predictor of a sound decision-maker was a high capacity for strategic attention, the ability to filter the most important information from less relevant data. Even better, the study found that strategic attention actually increases with age. And single-tasking is one of the best ways to prime the mind for strategic attention. (See tips for making better decisions from the study's authors here.)